You're breaking my... left hand?
September 12, 2010 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Is it normal to experience emotional distress as physical pain?

I'm female and almost 40. When I experience strong emotional distress, my left arm aches. The more intense the sadness, the more acutely I feel the pain spread towards my fingers. At worst, it really hurts a lot.

I realize the symptom could be worrisome if it were a recent development, but this has been going on for as long as I can remember, ever since I was a kid. It has never really worried me, probably because I got used to it from such an early age on and for a long time assumed it's just the way the human body works.

I'm otherwise very healthy and fit and have never had any reason to suspect coronary disease or anything like that. (I did break the arm in question once when falling from a tree as a small child, and later again in my 20's in a sports accident.)

I tried to ask some friends once as a teenager if this is how they experience sadness/loneliness/despair/etc. too - if everyone feels it as physical pain? They more or less rolled their eyes and seemed to imply it was just some kind of "waaah, look at me suffer" kind of BS from my part. Embarrassing. So I deduced this is somewhat unusual.

I know emotional distress, hurt or e.g. an anxiety attack can manifest itself in all sorts of psychosomatic physical symptoms or illnesses, but I always thought the mechanisms would be more subtle or subconscious, especially in cases when one bottles up their feelings or tries to ignore them, which I don't think is the case with me. When I'm acutely sad and especially if I really let myself wallow in self-pity, I can simply feel my heart just pump the pain into my arm. It's weird.

What exactly could be causing it?
Is there any reason to be alarmed?

Anonymous, because I think I'm a freak.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if it's "normal" but it's certainly possible. Emotional problems can manifest themselves physically.
posted by dfriedman at 9:37 AM on September 12, 2010

Definitely possible. In this case, it could be as simple as an unconscious clenching of a muscle in your neck, chest, or arm.

The good news is the opposite works as well. Relax your body and your emotions will follow.
posted by callmejay at 9:44 AM on September 12, 2010

distress = stress = muscles clenching. As callmejay says, you could be clenching a muscle that interferes with your arm.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:46 AM on September 12, 2010

Absolutely. Even this 2008 BBC article talks about physical pain and emotional pain. I cannot find the link right now, but studies conducted on loneliness revealed that emotional pain is registered in the same part of the brain as physical pain.

Namely the anterior cingulate cortex:
Neuroscientist Mary Frances O'Connor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is one of the scientists who have propelled emotional pain up the research agenda.

"We're at a very new time when we can use technologies to look at the brain and the heart," she says.

Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA has shown which parts of the brain are active when we feel emotional pain.

She devised an intriguing computer game in which participants were deliberately made to feel left out.

Simultaneous brain scanning revealed that the pain of being socially rejected was processed in much the same way in the brain as physical pain and in the same area, the anterior cingulate cortex.
posted by simulacra at 9:46 AM on September 12, 2010

There are some studies that stress causes inflammation. Did you also injure the joints when you had those breaks? If so, some arthritis might have developed there and the inflammation on the joints is causing the pain.
My Rheumatoid arthritis was probably causing me little aches and twinges, it took my husband losing his job while we had a contract on the house to ratchet it up to debilitating pain.
posted by saffry at 9:48 AM on September 12, 2010

I know emotional distress, hurt or e.g. an anxiety attack can manifest itself in all sorts of psychosomatic physical symptoms or illnesses, but I always thought the mechanisms would be more subtle or subconscious, especially in cases when one bottles up their feelings or tries to ignore them

You might benefit from reading some more about somatoform disorders "physical symptoms that mimic physical disease or injury for which there is no identifiable physical cause" and it's the current medically recognized term for what a lot of people casually call psychosomatic illness.

In any case, I get the same thing in a related way. When I'm really under a lot of stress [the last time this happened to me was after the breakup of a long term relationship] I get what feels like tingling/numbness on my scalp and in my hand/foot. And I've been to the doctor about this [convinced I had MS or something similar] and got all checked out and was all okay and as the stress, which I felt I had been managing okay, subsided, the symptoms subsided. Now I sort of use those feelings, when I encounter them, to let me know I have a stress problem that need addressing.

So it is possible that this is 1) mostly occurring in your head, but 2) really happening at the same time. I don't think this is normal, i.e. not commonly happening to most people, but at the same time I don't think it's cause for alarm either.
posted by jessamyn at 9:49 AM on September 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

This could well be a Pavlovian type response. Because your arm has had serious injury twice in the past, and those injuries were (I presume) also accompanied by emotional distress, you have learned to associate emotional distress with pain in your arm, so when you feel emotional distress your arm hurts. It is possible that this situation could be helped by some form of meditation about those earlier injuries. No guarantees. In any event, it is probably a problem that you can live with.
posted by grizzled at 9:50 AM on September 12, 2010

I remember learning in my psych classes that physical stress constricts blood flow to the extremities, thus why you'll find yourself with cold hands and feet when you're stressed out.
I brought a toy dinosaur into the final exam and played with it whenever I felt my hands get cold, to reduce my stress level as deduced from the temperature of said hands. The instructor came around to ask what was up with the dinosaur and ended up giving me bonus points for applying the lessons to a real-life situation.
So, er, what I said before with bonus anecdote.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:55 AM on September 12, 2010

When my father was dying, I was 30 and in good health but in amongst all the general sadness and fear, I had a few episodes where I felt intense physical pain in my chest.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:24 AM on September 12, 2010

I'm the same way. When I feel fear, anxiety, or acute pain, I get really bad intestinal distress and nausea, and experience all the consequences of that. Surprisingly only happens when I'm in emotional distress.
posted by biochemist at 11:56 AM on September 12, 2010

For me, I feel it in my fingertips and, if it's really bad, both hands.
posted by carmicha at 12:10 PM on September 12, 2010

Similarly: I get nauseous under work-related stress, to the point of vomiting in extreme cases. Really motivated me to develop strategies for preventing work-related stress situations...
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 12:24 PM on September 12, 2010

Is it normal to experience emotional distress as physical pain?

posted by Ironmouth at 12:37 PM on September 12, 2010

After my mother's death, I found that when the grief was bad, I felt a pain from chest radiating partway down my left arm. It seems plausible to me that there is physiological link since it does seem similar to the radiating pain down the left arm that they describe as a common symptom of a heart attack.

For me, this is completely different from my response to anxiety and stress where I get nauseaus and vomit, even when I don't "feel" that upset. (actually especially if I don't feel that upset - the sublimation is expressed via my digestive system. But for me the arm pain is related to intense sadness and grief, not anxiety or stress.

So, you've got company on this one - didn't even need to make an anonymous since it's too common to be freaky.

I haven't tried to control mine but my guess is that it is related to the amount of tension your body experiences. For me, I had to make a rule for myself that it was OK to cry but I'm not allowed to hold my breath while I do it. (I give myself headaches because I am so tight that I hold my breath until it comes out in a big sob. Remembering to breath avoids that problem.)
I wonder if something similar might help you - it is perfectly OK to be having the feelings but let one small part of your brain stay on the alert for the physical tension and encourage yourself to relax the muscles while still having a good cry or whatever.
posted by metahawk at 2:16 PM on September 12, 2010

They don't call it "heartbreak" for nothing. Those who have felt the chest pains would understand.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 5:24 PM on September 12, 2010

Data point: Ever since I can remember...when someone I care about tells me about something squeamish that happened to them, I get a strange feeling in both my calves. (My sister used to chase me around showing me her appendix scar for that reason.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:52 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Totally normal. I get physical stomachaches from emotional distress.
posted by Eshkol at 7:53 PM on September 12, 2010

yeah, I've had the arm pain from intense longing and heartbreak. (both arms though)
posted by serena15221 at 8:52 PM on September 12, 2010

They don't call it "heartbreak" for nothing. Those who have felt the chest pains would understand.

posted by desuetude at 9:22 PM on September 12, 2010

You're definitely not a freak - it's totally normal.
posted by deborah at 11:11 AM on September 13, 2010

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